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Biological Rhythms from the Lens of Chinese Medicine

How too much screen time affects your health
Blue light and insomnia.

How Blue Light Destroys Your Circadian Rhythms and Sleep Quality 

The concept of Yin and Yang is deeply rooted in Classical Chinese medicine. Yin and yang are concepts around relationship. They establish a comparative and a continuum for creating a harmonious lifestyle between humans and our natural world. Human rhythms in Chinese medicine are  fundamental to health. To further refine the theories of Classical Chinese philosophy for a medical context two more overlays were introduced. One is the five element model and the other is the six qi.

The five element model first made its appearance in Classical Chinese medical theory in chapter 5 of the Suwen. The Suwen or The Basic Questions. It is the first text of the Huangdi Neijing.  The Neijing is considered the fundamental doctrine for Chinese medicine. Many scholars date the Huangdi Neijing as a Han dynasty text written somewhere in range of 206 BCE–220 CE.

The yin and yang relationship do not exist without the other. Heaven and earth, clear and turbid diffused or congealed are all associations based on the polarity concept of yin and yang. The five element theory defines an organism and its inner organization of it’s nature, strength as well as its affinities with other beings.

Again, it is a more detailed account of interactions, transactions and the resulting transformations that occur to yin and yang while we travel the cycles of the seasons. The six qi are climatic conditions found in nature and how they effect living organisms both in health and how intemperate lifestyle can cause these influences to propagate disease. The six qi are Wind, cold, summer-heat, damp, dryness, and fire. So it starts to lay a groundwork of how life is cyclical. Small cycles of night and day, into larger seasonal cycles to even larger cycles of human development birth, maturation through death. 

Chinese medicine is based on the relationship between health, nature, the seasons, and the cycles from the cosmos. Western medicine is just now beginning to examine how defying natural human rhythms can effect our health. We’re just now seeing really important research being published in acclaimed medical journals from practitioners of conventional medicine.

This is because increasing rates of insomnia, sleep disruption, rising rates of anxiety, depression, and cardiovascular disease have led to scientists to conclude that it might just be the blue light that pollutes our homes that is emitted from personal electronics and the newer led lightbulbs. The spectrum of light given off by these consumer products has been proven  in many studies to interrupt our circadian rhythm and the normal wake/sleep cycles.

Since most of the body’s healing and restorative mechanisms happen during the deeper, critical stages of sleep called slow wave sleep, what happens if we’re never sleeping deeply enough to access these stages? Or sleeping long enough to experience enough of them? 

The Pineal Gland and Melatonin

The pineal gland in our brain is the endocrine gland that controls our production of melatonin and regulates circadian rhythms, including our sleep/wake cycles.

The secretion of melatonin is regulated by light—it’s presence or absence of it. In absence of light we produce melatonin, so we can sleep while its dark. When light hits the retina of our eyes, though, this signals the brain to switch off melatonin production.

Melatonin helps us to “power down” wakefulness and prepare for sleep. This is why nightshift workers suffer many health problems—lack of sleep during the nighttime, which is ideal for keeping us in tune with our human rhythms and our “ideal” time of rest.

Melatonin is also a crucial nutrient to our body because it is a powerful antioxidant, protecting us from premature aging, cancer, and degenerative diseases of all kinds caused by the wear and tear of free radicals upon our cells (especially in the absence of antioxidants to counteract them).

Numerous studies have proven that blue light in the evening disrupts the brain’s natural sleep-wake cycles, which are fundamental in helping us get quality sleep.

Blue Light: A Flood of Circadian Rhythm Disruption  

We’ve been exposed to blue light since the advent of electricity. Every type of light emitted by anything electric emits blue light, from light bulbs, to night lights, to our television sets. But the consequences of excessive blue light exposure—sleep loss, sleep deprivation, sleep disruption didn’t get really bad until we started staring, for really long periods of time, right into all our devices. The retina, after all, is where circadian rhythms happen. Our wakefulness depends upon blue light striking the retinas and the absence of that is necessary to get sleep as well.

In fact, even very dim light can impact human rhythms, melatonin release, and cause sleep disruption. In studies, a light of 8 lux, the level of light emitted by a table lamp, has a negative impact on sleep duration, slow wave sleep cycles, and sleep quality.

In another study, Harvard researchers found that 6.5 hours of blue light exposure suppressed melatonin for 3 hours—the difference between falling asleep at 10 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Of course, for those of us who have to get up at 5 or 6 a.m., this is disastrous.

The risk of too much blue light exposure (and sleep loss) ultimately is the same as those of third shift workers—a gradual lessening in our quality of health that can make us vulnerable to a wide array of deadly disease, including diabetes and cancer.

One reason for this, as I referred to earlier, is because blue light exposure prevents us from reaching those deep stages of sleep called 3rd and 4th stage or slow wave sleep that are critically important to health. Slow wave sleep is when we burn fat, repair cells, manufacture hormones, repair organs, and repair systems that keep us healthy and protect us from disease. This has been confirmed in several important studies.

Another reason blue light exposure is so deadly is the melatonin deprivation. Melatonin protects the body from oxidative stress as well as protects us from certain types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

What Can We Do?

Some of us must work on computers many, many hours a day or enjoy those, our phones, and our video games too much to realistically curb our exposure enough to not impact our sleep. So what can we do to get more sleep despite all this blue light exposure.

All kinds of things can help, actually.

  • Put some extra floor or table lamps around rooms you sit in most often with red light bulbs installed in them. Turn these on at night to counteract some of your blue light exposure and trigger some melatonin release.
  • Install an app like f.lux on all your devices. This will decrease the blue light emitted by your screens.
  • If you wear glasses, they make really good blue-light blocking filters now you can have your ophthalmologist prescribe that are making a big difference for many people today.
  • Try to limit blue light exposure for three hours before bed.

But the most effective things you can do is get some morning sunlight. Research shows that getting early morning sunlight can enhance your ability to get sleepy and fall asleep in the evening, as well as boost wakefulness and cognitive function during the day.


We are just now gaining a truly comprehensive, scientific and holistic understanding of the myriad of implications circadian rhythms can have on our health. To be healthy, we all must strive to achieve balance with these most basic human rhythms in order to be our best selves. Chinese medicine has much to offer in helping us to recalibrate when things have gone astray as well as maintaining the natural rhythms of life.

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